The day that Fidel Castro died; it finally came around last Friday, and was a day that the whole world had waited on for more than a decade, and with very mixed emotions.
I won’t delve too deeply into the rights and wrongs of the Castro era, as having spent a great deal of time in Cuba during the mid 2000’s my opinions may be a whole lot brighter than those of people who have not had the chance to fully immerse themselves in the unique and amazing country that is Cuba.
In the past few years things have opened up a great deal in Cuba, which is good for many things, but will drive huge wedges between a society that was perhaps not quite ready for such a rapid change of pace and values.
The majority of Cubans were born and raised for their entire lives with the umbrella and masking of Castro, which was both as comfort and a restriction in some ways. There is no doubt the arrival of mainstream capitalism has, and will change the face and pace of Cuba forever.
Over the years I’ve ridden the croc’s share of roads and trails around this surprisingly varied Caribbean island, and when that riding is combined with its uniquely isolated society and way of life it all shakes together like a mojito without comparison - in my humble option that is.
Even now, with the opening of the floodgate to US mass tourism. much of Cuba, and its amazing cycling adventures remain relatively untapped.
It’s hard to scroll for half a day through social media pages without fining yet another media outlet “discovering” Cuba, although Christopher Columbus still holds an official claim to that honour – not that he was the first there, the native indigenous people were there long before he sighted land.
What amazes me about these newfound discoveries of Cuba is that they are just about all confined to the streets Havana; the capital city famed for its crumbling buildings and old gangster era American cars. This really does not even scratch the surface of the real Cuba, let alone tap into the best riding in the land.
Thanks to the great historical lack of recent personal wealth and available access to buy cars, Cuba has incredibly low traffic rates, which means that it’s a very quiet and safe place to ride a bike.
There’s a reasonable national road network in place, although needless to say a lack of funds and usage does mean that road surfaces are not always pristine, but that really is not much of a deterrent.
Cuba has always prided its self on athletic prowess, and you only need to look at the great roll call of boxers and track athletes for starters. But, it doesn’t stop there; cycling is also popular in Cuba, and there has always been a steady stream of high quality road and track riders emerging from Cuba, although given the communist stance of the regime they have largely been restricted to riding in the Americas, which they do so with great success.
Being an athlete in Cuba is something of a matter of pride. Not only does it lead to a slightly better lifestyle and security, it also firmly upholds the party beliefs. There are sporting schools throughout the country, and any promising young athletes is encouraged to follow their educational path in combination with a sporting one – and Cuba does have one of the highest university graduation rates in the world.
Sadly, trading restrictions and embargos have not only held back economic progress and well being, they have also directly impacted resources and funding for these sporting programs.
With such heavy equipment burdens involved in cycling it’s still not unusual to see young up and coming riders thrashing around of old steel bikes with brake cables and cotter pins, and living for every minute of it too, which is very refreshing to see.
Over the years I rode with many of these riders, which was truly inspiring. Sadly when you pull out images for magazine features editors often shiver at the though of running pictures of riders without helmets who look like the rode straight out of 1972; sad, but often the way it goes.
For many years there was a Vuelta a’ Cuba, an annual trans Cuba UCI Americas Tour stage race, which was almost always dominated by local riders. It was their big yearly opportunity to prize-fight, unranked, against the much better funded western riders. Sadly it stopped after 2010.
The sport has its own home grown heroes and legends in Cuba too, with Pedro Pablo Perez being one of the greatest all time Cuban road racers. He won the home tour 5 times, as well as many other major regional stage races. In 2000 he rode the Olympics in Sydney, and was due to start the 2008 Beijing road race too. Sadly he was almost killed in a car crash just before this, and would never return to cycling. His wife, Yoanka Gonzalez Perez, was the 2004 World Scratch Race Champion on the track.
Without question, even with its re-emergence as a tourist hotspot, Cuba is a superb place to travel with a bike. There are superb rides and routes to be found all over the country, with many being pan-flat, and others very steeply mountainous, and all come drenched and doused in modern living history, which is changing and adding chapters by the day.
If there is one place you really should fast track towards the top of your bucket list of great ride destinations then it should be Cuba. Within a few years the hordes will undoubtedly impact on the whole experience, and that would be a shame for those looking for something very special.
Here’s a very rough guide to the prize road riding in Cuba.
Pinar del Rio – the whole mountainous west from Vinales and back towards Havana throws up some great road and dirt trail riding, with mind popping scenery to go.
The beautiful south – From Santiago de Cuba west along the remote and rugged coast, and then back around the super steep climbs into the Sierra Maestre Mountains of Granma Province (to La Plata, from where Fidel and Che drove the revolution from) make for an epic and revolution rich tour.
La Farola – a famous trans mountain road from Guantanamo to Baracoa, a very remote and untouched coastal town in the far east of Cuba. This is an alpine like climb with a jungle backdrop, and truly a highlight of Cuban cycling.
Sierra Escambray – Trinidad (in the middle of Cuba) is probably the most picturesque town in the country, and it’s also the gateway to the Sierra del Escambray Mountains.
Here is a really steep and long climb up to the nature reserve at Topes de Callantes, from there one of the most impressive roads in Cuba rolls out over the mountains towards Cienfuegos.